Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,
overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way
to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)
is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
It's that final line that sounds so much like Obama. That desire for connection, that fundamental interest in the other.
But, so does the irreverent line about the dead dog. Alexander is a serious poet who doesn't take herself too seriously. One can say the same about Obama as a politician (just check out the header photo at SemiObama to get an idea of his willingness to poke fun at his persona).
But, there is nothing funny about this occasion.
How does one write a poem as momentus as the inauguration of the first African American president?
The presidency, like poetry, is a construct. It has its rules, its genres, its rituals, and its traditions. Being successful at both requires a knowledge of those traditions but not an allegiance to them.
A professor at Yale, Alexander has published four books of poems. Her most recent, American Sublime (2005) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It's a great book, full of jazz and popular culture references as well as riffs on the classic "ars poetica" (the art of poetry) genre in which she re-examines poetry through the lens of race and popular notions of race. This makes her an unusual candidate for such a big moment. How will she do? What tone will she take? Will her poem be funny? Earnest? Will its resonance be commensurate with that of the moment at hand?
Pundits have spent the last several weeks dissecting Mr. Obama's cabinet selections, musing over what they suggest about his presidency. Along those same lines, I'm interested in what his selection of the inaugural poet reveals.
I am impressed that he resisted the pressure to reappoint Maya Angelou or to go with more obvious choices like Nikki Giovanni, Yousef Komunyakaa, or Rita Dove, who served as the Poet Laureate. All three are outstanding writers, and all would write memorable poems. Of that, you can be sure.
Ms. Alexander is, in some ways, more risky.
The others have had a large stage. She has not. But, like Obama himself, she is a thinker. Her poems indicate someone inward-looking and nuanced. Someone thoughtful. Again, not unlike Obama.
I can say this--I'm more excited to see what kind of poem she will write than I would be by any of the three I mention above. The anticipation of her poem--like the anticipation of the Obama presidency--is that of the unknown . . .God in the details, the only way to get from here to there.